Friday, November 25, 2016

'Rules Don't Apply' Is A Gorgeous, Creepy Mess

This review originally appeared on

Warren Beatty has been wanting to make a movie about Howard Hughes since the 1970s, and it's no wonder why he felt an affinity for the eccentric billionaire. Both Beatty and Hughes were dashing Hollywood men with an endless supply of women and a disdain for the spotlight. (For Beatty, that just meant a general dislike of the press and avoidance of interviews; for Hughes, it meant going for years without being seen at all.)

But Warren Beatty is pushing 80 now, so the chance to make a movie about all of Hughes' life has passed. (And has already been done, with Martin Scorsese's The Aviator.). So Rules Don't Apply isn't really a Howard Hughes biopic as much as it is a Hollywood romance with Howard Hughes as a sort of looming, dominant, almost godlike force that's sometimes front and center, but is more often sitting hidden behind a wall, or a curtain, or the door to a screening room.

Covering fours years, the movie starts in 1964, but then bounces back to 1960, where we meet Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins) and her mother Lucy (Annette Benning), who have just arrived in Los Angeles. Marla is a good Virginia Baptist girl, a beauty contest-winner who has been granted a movie contract with Hughes' RKO Pictures studio. She soon learns she's one of dozens of girls, all under contract and living in fully furnished homes paid for by Hughes, who are all wondering when and if they'll ever actually meet him, let alone get a film role.

Marla's driver is Frank (Alden Ehrenreich), a good Fresno Methodist whose big goal in life is real estate, but who finds himself drawn further and further into Hughes' inner circle. Frank is also developing feelings for Marla, but their religions, paired with Hughes' insistence that the drivers never date the actresses, are impediments.

Any fan of post-war Hollywood glamour won't be disappointed by Rules Don't Apply's gorgeous recreation. The costumes, cars, and sets are a vintage lover's dream, and had me so enraptured I could almost overlook the fact that the movie I was watching is a bit of a mess.

Beatty seems unsure if he wants the story to be about Hughes or about the young lovers, so he never gives full focus to either. At about the middle mark, the film begins to center a bit more on Hughes and his increasingly erratic behavior, which, while fueled by genuine mental illness, is mostly played for laughs. And granted, some of those moments are really, really funny. Beatty has always had keen comedic timing, and there's one scene centered on a 26 page memo to the police department about a missing cat that stretches so far past the breaking point that it springs back and becomes one of the funniest things I've seen all year.

I have a feeling Beatty was well aware he was too old to be playing the 60-ish Hughes, as a vast majority of his scenes are shot in shadow or dim lighting. And while that might do some to hide his obvious age, it does nothing for his looks, instead reducing his eyes to black, devilish orbs in the darkness, a vision all the more creepy when it comes to the inevitable love scene between Hughes and his starlet. (This is a Warren Beatty movie. You didn't think he wasn't going to make out with the ingenue, did you?)

As tends to be the case these days, it was hard to view Rules Don't Apply through anything but the lens of our current climate. After all, it features a rich, temperamental businessman, likely completely crazy, who views women as property. And I imagine many who worked for Hughes felt the same way: It could actually be kind of funny...if our lives didn't depend on him keeping his shit together.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

'Moana' Isn't Your Standard Disney Princess Movie, And That's A Good Thing

This review originally appeared on

Towards the middle of Moana, Disney's latest non-Pixar animated release, the demi-god Maui calls the heroine "princess." Moana corrects him, telling him she's not a princess, she's the daughter of the chief.

"You're wearing a dress and you have an animal sidekick. You're a princess," replies Maui.

He has a point.

Granted, the dress she wears doesn't sparkle in any way, and her animal sidekick is a mentally challenged chicken that doesn't talk, but in many ways she does resemble a Disney princess: she's beautiful, with long flowing hair; she's rebellious; and while she may not be "royalty," she's heir to the top position in her village. (Some say chief, others say princess.)

So, yes. Disney could be accused of creating just another Disney princess. But it's Moana's differences from those previous princesses that are key.

For one, she's not white. Yes, Disney has given us Princesses of Color in the past, but let's face it, the majority of them have been alt-right approved. (Not to mention that the most popular animated Disney movie of all time, Frozen, was so white, I'm surprised you could even see the princesses against all that snow.)

For another, there is no love interest. There's no prince destined for Moana's hand, and while she does spend the majority of the movie with a beefy demi-god, their relationship is strictly platonic. Her reward is a successful quest, not a happily-wedded-after.

Moana is steeped in cultural folklore, mainly from the South Pacific islands, and is set during the time when those Polynesian natives were the explorers and settlers, long before the west arrived. The movie opens with a grandmother telling a group of children about Maui, the demi-god who created the islands, in a nice bit of animation that resembles Polynesian tattoos. (Maui's animated tattoos become a running gag later on in the movie as well.)

Moana (Auli'i Cravalho, a Hawaiian native making her screen debut) lives on the island of Motunui, where ever since she was a (really, really cute) baby, she's been drawn to the sea. Her father, Chief Tui Waialiki (Temuera Morrison), is convinced any attempts to venture past the island's reef will be met with doom.

But as their island begins to lose its fish and its crops, Moana believes their only hope is to leave the island, and, following the lead of her grandmother's stories, find Maui and force him to return the stolen heart of Te Fiti. It makes a little more sense in the movie, though really, it's just a story device to get Moana and Maui together.

And once they are together, the film hits its stride. The Rock gives Maui just the right amount of bravado —: he's a jerk, but a lovable one. Because this is not a Pixar movie, it means the movie breaks for songs, and even Maui gets one, the amusing and pretty catchy You're Welcome, which, along with the rest of the film's songs, has lyrics written by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Of course, Moana gets a ballad as well (How Far I'll Go), but I'm not sure it's going to become a song parents learn to hate as much as Let It Go, mainly because I don't think it's going to be as big of a hit, regardless of the presence of that word "go" in there. (A better song comes care of Jemaine Clement, who makes an appearance as a Bowie-esque giant crab in love with Shiny things.)

The majority of the movie follows Moana and Maui on their ocean voyage, as Moana learns to become an ocean navigator, on the way to saving the world. And refreshingly, once Maui gets past the princess jokes, he learns to treat her as an equal, and not as a helpless maiden.

In fact, there's not a lot that's girly about Moana. On every step of her journey, her gender is never an impediment, and is rarely brought into play. Now, I don't know if that's because the movie was written by eight people, only one of whom is a woman, or because it was directed by four dudes, or if it was actually by conscious design. And it doesn't really matter. By giving us a heroine that acts the way heroes always have, perhaps Disney has finally given us a "princess" movie that can cross that mythical gender divide.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Plot-Packed 'Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them' Plays To Adults

This review originally appeared on

It's been almost 20 years since the first Harry Potter novel was released, and fifteen since the first film in the series hit theaters. Those kids who first read those books and saw the movies are adults now, many with kids of their own, and while I'm sure they're sharing their Harry Potter love with those youngsters, I bet there's a part of them that wishes there were some new stories to dive into.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fits into that niche quite well, giving adult Harry Potter fans something aimed a little more at them, while still being perfectly acceptable for those younger Potterphiles.

Until recently (this week, as a matter of fact), my only exposure to the Harry Potter world was via the movies, not the books. I saw them all, and enjoyed them, but never felt particularly drawn into the world. In general, the genre isn't my favorite. But Fantastic Beasts sucked me in right away for two reasons. One, because it's centered on adults, and not kids. And the other because I am a sucker for period pieces, especially when that period is New York City in the 1920's.

Directed by David Yates, who directed the final four Harry Potter films, from a screenplay by J.K. Rowling (her first), the film is based on the title of a textbook assigned to first year Hogwarts students, which was released as an actual companion book to the original series in 2001. It centers on the book's supposed author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), a magizoologist who arrives in New York with a suitcase full of critters and plans to release one into its native habitat in Arizona. These beasts aren't pretty unicorns, and most are kind of, well, beastly. (My favorite has to be the platypus-like Niffler, who seems to like shiny jewelry almost as much as I do.)

But before he can even hail a cab, he comes face-to-face with the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an anti-witchcraft cult headed by the stern Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton), and her creepy adopted kids, including Ezra Miller as Credence, who looks like Buster Keaton — if Buster Keaton had been beaten by his mother on a daily basis.

If that weren't enough, one of Newt's creatures escapes; he accidentally reveals his magical skills to a No-maj named Jacob Kowalski (No-maj is the American version of Muggle); and he is arrested by Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterson, always charming), an investigator with the Magical Congress of the United States of America.

When his beasts are wrongfully accused of the destruction that has befallen certain areas of the city, Newt, Tina, her clairvoyant sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), and Jacob (Dan Fogler) team up to rescue the escaped beasts, and figure out just what is behind the seemingly dark magic rampages. And that's just one plotline in a film that has many.

But that can be forgiven since the movie is supposed to be the first in a series of five films. They need to set up a lot of things, like how magic in America is kept hidden, how those who practice it are segregated from the No-majs (segregation, because, America), and how a dark wizard has broken free in Europe, bent on exposing the magical world to the Muggles and taking over both. (The casting of that character is supposed to be a secret, though by now it's pretty much an open one. But, just in case, I'll just say I wonder if they're beginning to regret their casting choice in light of this past year's events, because I know the reveal didn't exactly fill me with excitement.)

This is the third Eddie Redmayne film I've seen in which he plays a character that never seems to look anyone in the eye. Newt is supposed to be shy and a bit awkward, hence the shifty looks, but it's an affectation that grows a bit tiresome. He also mumbles a lot, which meant I spent half the film wondering if I'd missed a key piece of dialogue.

Much more delightful is the performance of Dan Fogler as Kowalski, the cannery worker who dreams of opening a bakery. He's basically a stand-in for the audience, as he's exposed to more and more magic with wide-eyed wonder, and a what-the-hell-why-not attitude. Fogler's perfect comic timing also gives the movie the majority of its laughs.

Towards the end, the film gets a little too action-packed, with the city of New York (once again) on the verge of destruction. But there are enough moments of magic in the rest of the movie to make up for it, and it had me looking forward to the stories to come. Especially if Newt drops the mumbling, and pairs up with Kowalski.

Better yet, give Kowalski his own spin-off! Fantastic Feasts and Where to Eat Them. I'll be first in line.

Friday, November 11, 2016

'Arrival' Is Both Sci-Fi Spectacle And Art House Head Trip

This review originally appeared on

It's an interesting time for a movie like Arrival. Had I seen it a week ago, and not the day after the beginning of the apocalypse election, my reaction to it may have been different. But after the events of this week it's hard not to view a story about a relatively measured response to an alien arrival as anything other than pure fantasy.

But, of course it's fantasy; it's a movie! And a big reason we go to the movies is to escape. I will admit, sitting in that theater for two hours, free from post-election worries and the constant updates in my Facebook feed, was the best I'd felt in almost two days.

So, yeah, Arrival may seem a little laughable, considering the direction the world is going. But I'm doing my best to view a scenario where the first words out of the President's mouth aren't, "I don't care if this is unprecedented. They came here illegally! And also, how can we be sure they aren't Muslims? BLOW THEM UP!" as hopeful and not naive.

As a matter of fact, we never see the President of the United States. Instead, this story about twelve monolithic spacecrafts that have landed at various spots around the world focuses, primarily, on the scientists, soldiers, and governmental grunts who decide the most important thing they can do is get an answer to the question "Why are you here?"

To do that, they recruit Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguist. Having suffered a tremendous loss, she's lonely and brooding, with nothing to lose. With Adams' pale face and wistful performance, Louise comes off as a ghost in her own world. Why not take a trip to the middle of Montana to enter a spaceship?

She's paired up with Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), a physicist. When the two first meet, she argues that language is the bedrock of humanity, while he argues that science is. (She's right. There's no science without language, dude.) While he's got a lot of questions he'd like these aliens to answer, Louise reminds him it might be best to stick to the basics, like names, before jumping into quantum physics.

Arrival starts off at a pretty fast clip; it doesn't take long before Louise and Ian are donning hazmat suits and entering that ship. That scene, while definitely bringing to mind movies like 2001 and Close Encounters, stills manages to feel completely new, as the laws of gravity are twisted, and the scientists enter a cavelike room that resembles nothing else if not a movie theater.

I was impressed with director Denis Villenueve's use of music in last year's Sicario, where Jóhann Jóhannsson's score felt like a pulse, driving the intensity of several scenes. Jóhannsson returns here, and the score has a similar effect, enveloping the viewer in an alien realm.

The aliens, which are eventually called heptapods, look a little like giant hands were molded into squids. Louise quickly figures out it would make more sense to try and learn a visual language than a verbal one. She is eventually able to decode the aliens' written language, which resembles a kind of circular Rorschach inkblot, but the movie, unfortunately, skims over just how she does that, instead relegating the breakthrough to a moment of narration over a montage.

That's disappointing because up to that point, the movie really does center on the slow but still exciting process of discovery and revelation, free from conflict. Instead, the movie almost gets lost in a subplot involving soldiers who view the aliens as nothing but a threat, and rising fear around the world.

But I'll give that a pass because why the soldiers do what they do is still central to the one of the film's central themes, namely, the power of language, and how words can drive people to do some pretty crazy things. (There I go, bringing up the election again!)

Arrival's advertisements aren't hiding the fact that there's a twist in the movie. I'm not going to spoil it, but will say I imagine some people are going to come out of it scratching their heads, especially if they're used to linear storytelling. For me, I was glad the use of flashbacks and Louise's soft-focus memories of walking through grass meant more than just proof that Villenueve has seen a lot of Terrence Malick movies.

Arrival walks a delicate balance between science fiction spectacle and art house head trip, which explains why it was released during awards season, and not amongst the summer blockbusters. It raises some really interesting questions about time and the human experience that requires a lot more thinking than something like Independence Day does, and I hope it succeeds, because if a movie like this can become a hit in our current landscape, there might be hope for the future.

Friday, November 4, 2016

'Doctor Strange' Is A Superhero Movie On Peyote

This review originally appeared on

Having suffered this year through both Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad, I went into Doctor Strange with some trepidation. Yes, both of those disasters were DC flicks, and Doctor Strange is the latest entry into the expanding Marvel cinematic universe, which has time and again proven to be far superior. But along with B vs S, and Suicide Squad, this year has also brought us Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, and X-Men: Apocalypse. Can you blame a woman for feeling some superhero fatigue?

At least Doctor Strange is going for something a little different, at times coming across as a superhero movie on peyote. Which makes sense, since the character's comic book rise concurred with the psychedelic sixties (even if its creators insist they were nothing but squares).

Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, indeed, an actual doctor, a brilliant and arrogant neurosurgeon who trades romantic banter with Christine (Rachel McAdams), a fellow surgeon and former romantic partner. It seems they didn't break up as much as his growing ego just kind of pushed her out the door.

So, of course, he lives alone in huge New York apartment in the clouds, with only his drawers full of kinetic watches (FORESHADOWING!) to keep him company. He's the kind of guy who drives recklessly across winding two lane roads while checking his phone messages. Of course, that ends up with him nearly losing his life and tragically losing almost all use of this hands. And what's a brilliant surgeon without his hands?

When western medicine fails him, he seeks out alternative treatments, on a quest that leads him to Kathmandu, and the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), an oracle/guru/witch/swami/sorcerer/everything else "mystical," who convinces the doctor the cure for his broken hands is via a stronger spiritual center.

There's some controversy surrounding the casting of Swinton in a role originally written as an Asian man. Director Scott Derrickson's defense is basically that the original character was a racial stereotype, so by casting a white woman, they were able to avoid those racist undertones. Of course, another reaction to such a character could have been to just write a better version of him, but with that said, I will admit I appreciated Swinton's presence. A lot. She's easily one of the best things about the movie, bringing her trademarked brand of kookiness, which is always delightful to watch. Plus, damnit, we need all the female superheroes we can get!

Dr. Strange trains with the Ancient One, getting further guidance from Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a fellow follower, learning to cast spells, open doorways in space, and throw a mean punch. These lessons lead the characters into psychedelic realities that look like a cross between an Escher painting, a kaleidoscope, and Inception. These moments are fun and colorful, at first. But once the trio has to fight bad guy Kaecilius, (Mads Mikkelsen), the ever rotating and expanding landscapes get a little exhausting. (I will admit the murky 3-D I was forced to watch the movie in did it no favors.)

When Doctor Strange works, it's for the same reasons most of the Marvel movies do: They aren't afraid of humor, and they know what's funny. Cumberbatch's dry delivery, some slapstick involving the Cloak of Levitation, and a funny bit about a wifi password had me laughing more than anything in Suicide Squad and B Vs S combined.

But it also suffers from the same big problem so many of these superhero movies suffer from: too many villains, and villains that are just too big. Kaecilius alone would be enough, but by the end, with the introduction of an even bigger bad, the destruction of the entire universe is at stake. How Dr. Strange deals with the situation, while supposedly a very bad thing to do, doesn't seem to have any negative consequences, and leaves you wondering, well, if he can just do that, why would we ever need any superheroes saving us from anything ever again?